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Eastern Conference Remains a Tight Race; Plus More From Around the NHL

Taylor Hall (Photo by Catalina Fragoso - Double G Media)

Taylor Hall (Photo by Catalina Fragoso – Double G Media)


We’re now in the second full month of the 2016-17 campaign, and approaching the one-third mark.  Going into Wednesday night’s matchups, only ten points separate the first-place Penguins (35 points, with a game in hand on the Rangers) from the last-place Islanders and Hurricanes (25 points each).  As it stands right now, the Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals claim the first and second Wild Card slots, while the New Jersey Devils are knocking on the door to the playoffs.  Every team in the East has a .500 record or above going into Wednesday evening.  Given how tight the conference is as a whole, a three-to-four game winning or losing streak could make or break a team’s season.

The New York Rangers started off incredibly hot, but were injury-stricken come December (wait, am I describing this year, or last?).  Mika Zibanejad won’t return from his injury until early 2017.  Pavel Buchnevich continues to watch the games from the press-box as he is suffering from back spasms.  Michael Grabner left the country to mourn the loss of his grandmother (not a physical injury, but I’m sure he’s hurting).  He will rejoin the club in Winnipeg Thursday evening.  Rick Nash left last night’s matchup against cross-town rival Islanders.  The resurging winger will likely be out about a week or so with a groin injury.  There was no pushback from the newly-implemented concussion protocol from Matt Puempel, who was recently claimed off waivers by the Rangers from Ottawa. Puempel left Tuesday night’s heavy-hitting matchup after suffering a concussion on a high hit by Brock Nelson in front of the Rangers’ bench.  His timetable for return is also uncertain.  According to the Daily News, Nash, Puempel, and Jimmy Vesey were not present at practice in Greenburgh, NY Wednesday.  It is believed that Vesey is suffering from an upper-body injury related to a slash on his arm Tuesday night in Brooklyn.  Again, his status is uncertain.  All of this uncertainty surrounding key Rangers leaves the team’s future in the same uncertain hands.  For now, Marek Hrivik was called upon to play Tuesday evening, and Nick Jensen will join the Blueshirts for their back-to-back road trip.  Antti Raanta will also serve between the pipes against Winnipeg Thursday evening, with The King expected to start Friday evening against the Blackhawks in Chicago.

Right now is a real test for the New York Rangers.  Top forwards seem to be dropping like flies.  The entire squad must step up in order to fill the voids.  Rangers’ depth forwards will have a chance to keep the offensive threat alive.  Rangers’ goaltenders must play out of their minds and bodies in order to keep the squad on top of the leaderboard.  I’m not about to go ahead and blame Henrik Lundqvist for any of the four goals that were scored against him against the Islanders.  At first glance, it might have looked like four softies.  But, a couple of screens by Rangers’ defensemen, a bad bounce off of a Henrik poke check, and a straight-up snipe by Isles’ Captain John Tavares will crumble the empire of any king.  Right-handed defenseman Adam Clendening will likely see some more ice time to keep the defensemen fresh, healthy, and provide a right-handed shot on from the point, particularly on the power play.  Rangers’ special teams have been great thus far, but with many top forwards missing in action, their ninth-place rank on the man-advantage might easily falter to below average (Rangers went 0-6 on the power play Tuesday night).

On the other end of the spectrum, the New York Islanders started the season off on the wrong foot, both on and off the ice.  Key injuries, slow starts for newcomers, and trade block rumors served the Islanders a tough pill to swallow.  But in the last week or so, the Islanders have somehow managed to turn a complete 180.  After blowing a 3-0 lead against the Penguins but quickly recovering on the final night of November, the Isles followed up with a huge shutout against the Washington Capitals the very next night.  Despite losing in overtime to the Red Wings on Sunday night, the Isles kept course and defeated the Rangers on Tuesday.  Despite recent success, however, the Isles sit dead last on the man-advantage, and are just above average on the kill.  Of course, if the last week is just the start of an Isles’ turnaround, these ranks will improve.

But, the fact remains that power play needs improvement.  I am not a fan of how the unit sets up – two point men, two guys down low drifting between the goal line and the hash marks depending on where the puck is and who has it, and one guy stationed in the middle of the slot.  This formation causes the Islanders to form a larger box around the defenders’ smaller box, with one player on his own little island in the middle of the slot.  Instead of a player at the blue line being a so-called “quarterback” for the plays, this middle player serves that role.  But if the middle-player doesn’t pass the puck to the outside quick enough, the defending team will collapse and trap the puck-carrier in the middle, leaving little room to evade the situation.  Hockey is a game of time and space coupled with possession of the puck and an element of surprise.  When a team is on the man-advantage, there is more space, and thus more time to possess the puck and implement a surprise attack towards the goal.  Players on the man-advantage should utilize open space and cycle to confuse defenders.  I get the idea around the current Isles’ power play setup – shoot and crash the net looking for a rebound.  But the risk of the middle-player losing time and space is much greater.  Whether or not such a play would work with different players is irrelevant at this point.  Isles are dead last on the man-advantage.  Obviously it is not working.  Nevertheless, the Islanders keep rolling and will try to silence Vladimir Tarasenko and the St. Louis Blues (15-7-4) Thursday night at the Barclays Center.

Like most teams around the league suffering from major injuries early into the season, the New Jersey Devils were no different.  Most notably, Taylor Hall sat out for the better part of November.  But since his return to the lineup on December 1, Hall has two goals and three assists in three games.  The Devils are breathing down the Flyers’ backs, vying for the second Wild Card slot down three points with the same amount of games in hand.  The Devils will look to gain some more ground in the standings Thursday night as they face the Montreál Canadiens who are without both Alex Galchenyuk and David Desharnais for six-to-eight weeks, both with knee injuries; Devils face the Blues Friday after the Blues battle the Isles in Brooklyn the previous night; and they will have their first visit to Madison Square Garden this season to face an injury-riddled Rangers squad.

Tuesday night, in his third game back, Taylor Hall absolutely demolished Philip Larsen of the Vancouver Canucks.  As Larson picked up the puck with his head down behind the Vancouver goal, Hall swooped in to wish Larsen an early “happy birthday.”  His gift?  A trip to the hospital.  Subsequently, the players on the ice gathered around Larsen, still knocked-out, laying lifeless on the ice, for a little party of their own.  So much for giving the poor guy some air!  Let me grab my Don Cherry jacket and break this sequence down.

First of all, I commend the NHL for taking further steps to eliminate concussion-causing hits from the game by implementing new concussion protocol.  Similarly, the Department of Player Safety first started by Brendan Shanahan and now taken over by Stephane Quintal, has certainly improved in terms of suspensions and fines handed out to players who are guilty of the high hits directed at a player’s noggin.

Secondly, fighting still plays an important role in the NHL, regardless of the league’s attempts to curtail it.  While the role of the enforcer has nearly been eliminated given the increasing pace of today’s game, it’s important to maintain at least a player or two who isn’t afraid to drop the gloves to stick up for a teammate.

But here’s the issue: was Taylor Hall’s hit on Larsen dirty enough to elicit the response that it did?  On the one hand, Larson was skating with his head down, putting himself in a vulnerable position.  On the other, could Hall have held up?  The answer to that question is not clear.  Do we expect Hall to skate out of the way of Larsen to avoid hitting him and allow Larsen to continue to move the puck from the zone?  Imagine what we would all be saying about Hall if he did that?

Though these answers aren’t always clear, I believe Hall was just doing his job.  As far as Larsen’s teammates jumping in to stick up for him, they are foolish, yet representative of the sentiment of the players in today’s NHL.  In years’ past, players fought one another to stick up for teammates when it came to cheap shots, dirty hits, and other purposeful acts of antagonism.  Today, players fight over clean hits, simply because of the consequences, not the intent or lack thereof.  Hitting is part of the game.  Players today are violating the unwritten code that so many enforcers, refs, and coaches knew and understood by fighting over clean hits.  So what should the Canucks have done?  Wait – wait until Hall’s next shift, and intimidate the living daylights out of him.  Stay on him, bully him, and if he gets the puck, nail him!  That sends a message.  In today’s age of instant gratification, sometimes it’s better to be patient, strategically planning the revenge, instead of making a fuss right away.

So after Canucks and Devils players surrounded Hall behind the net, Larsen laid lifeless on the ice literally underneath the gathering.  And after the scrum broke up, did the Canucks roster feel satisfied?  Doubtful.  Will the Canucks be able to get revenge after the big get-together?  Also doubtful as the referees are all on notice.  Am I advocating for violence?  Not necessarily.  But that would be the better way to achieve the goal.

Speaking of enforcers, on Wednesday, John Scott officially announced his retirement from the National Hockey League in a blunt diary submission on The Players’ Tribune.  Scott never imagined he would actually take his hockey skills all the way to the NHL, but he managed to play pro for ten seasons, amassing eleven points (how many points have YOU scored in the NHL?).  Though the fans began to make a mockery of Scott by voting him in as captain at the 2016 NHL All-Star Game in Nashville, he took it all in stride, notching a couple goals, play-fighting with Patty Kane, and even being named All-Star MVP.  Too bad he was only one assist short of a Gordie Howe Hattrick.  Congratulations to John Scott on his retirement!  His feel-good story will no doubt claim its own page in the NHL memories scrap book.  Fan voting for the 2017 NHL All-Star Game is now open, but don’t expect any afterthoughts to captain any of the divisions this time around, as John Scott now also has a rule named after him!

Speaking of legends, our Jaromir Jagr-Watch is really beginning to heat up!  44-year old Jagr is just six points behind Mark Messier for second place in all-time points scored in the NHL.  It took Messier 1,756 games to earn 1,887 points.  Heading into Thursday, JJ has played exactly 100-less games.  Assuming he stays healthy, Jagr and the Panthers have eleven more matchups before the calendar turns.  Jagr is also basically a 0.5 points-per-game player.  Six points, in eleven games?  Very doable for the man-wonder.  Seven points to beat Messier for sole possession of second?  Well, it’s a bit of a stretch, but a couple multi-point nights and we might be witnessing history before 2016 is over.  Stay tuned…

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Evan is the Hockey Editor for He provides coverage of the New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, and Philadelphia Flyers, as well as some league-wide content.

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